The Age Suit and Talking to Older Drivers About Giving Up the Keys

By Benjamin Preston
Published: October 7, 2013

Imagine you have arthritis in every joint. With a stiff neck, knees that won’t bend past 40 degrees and arms that take great effort to hold up, driving would be a chore. Getting into the driver’s seat would be a controlled fall of sorts, and after plopping down behind the wheel, turning your head to check the mirrors would be nearly impossible.

That’s what it’s like to wear Liberty Mutual Insurance Company’s “age suit.” But the age suit is only meant to show someone in reasonably good health what it’s like to try driving while afflicted by a number of maladies. Here’s how the suit works: they tie weights to the ends of your arms and legs, squeeze your fingers with velcro straps, make you wear a neck brace and leg braces, strap on a fake gut and tie your shoulders to your waist with nylon straps so that it’s impossible to stand straight.

I tried it, and although the suit didn’t affect my vision or hearing, those are limitations that affect plenty of older drivers, including my relatives. But my arms and legs were heavy and responded more slowly than usual to my commands, making quick wheel adjustments and braking much more difficult. Also, I couldn’t turn my head to scan the rear of the car. I had to use the car’s mirrors for that task.

The age suit may sound gimmicky, but it serves a purpose: drawing attention to the fact that, according to the numbers the company gleaned from national Census Bureau projections, the number of older people in the United States will increase from 47 million in 2015 to 72 million in 2030. With many of those people living in suburbs where public transportation options are limited, that most likely means there will be an increase in the number of older drivers as well.

“It’s a real mistake to allow someone to drive until the law says they can’t anymore if they probably shouldn’t be driving anyway,” said Dave Melton, managing director of global safety for Liberty Mutual, in an interview after I’d conducted a Ford Fusion through some cone courses wearing an age suit. “This idea is meant to help people who need to have a conversation with their older loved ones about giving up driving.”

Mr. Melton said there were signals that driving was becoming more of a challenge, including driving very slowly; nervousness behind the wheel; dings, dents and scratches on the car; difficulty getting in and out of the vehicle; and reluctance or refusal to drive at night. As these signs gradually pile up, Mr. Melton says it’s a good idea to keep a gentle, but assertive dialog going.

“How do you tell someone it’s time to stop driving?” he asked. “You start early.”

But when Liberty Mutual asked 1,000 Baby Boomers who still had driving parents if they’d broached the subject, 29 percent of them said they were avoiding the conversation.

Part of the difficulty in getting someone to give up driving, particularly in many parts of the United States, is that other transportation options can be limited. Losing one’s wheels can often be equated to losing one’s freedom.

“It’s a hard thing to give up,” said Betty Abrams, 89, who stopped driving voluntarily when she moved to Connecticut from Maine. She said it would have been too difficult to learn new roads at her age and began looking at other options. She says she lives in an independent living complex for older people and that she still has some neighbors who drive in their 90s.

“They wait until the last minute, then they’re like lost souls when their car is taken away,” she said.

Her daughter, Katherine Freund, founder and president of iTNAmerica, a nonprofit senior transportation service, said that offering choices early rather than waiting until someone can’t drive could make the eventual surrender of the driver’s license more painless.

“If you live your life like it’s not going to happen, it can be a shock,” Ms. Freund said, adding that her organization was put together locally, community by community, with volunteer drivers taking older people who could no longer drive wherever they need to go. ITN is giving rides in 27 communities around the country, mostly concentrated in suburban areas.

“All these decisions are personal, and they all take time,” she said. “You don’t want to make it seem like you’re taking something away; you want to keep the conversation positive. When you do it that way, you give people the dignity to absorb what you’re saying.”